by R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Wind: To match one's body with one's heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night
The Surun' do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.
Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.
As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.
Set in R. B. Lemberg's beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves hearkens to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. In this breathtaking debut, Lemberg offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one's identity in a hostile world.
I originally picked this up on Corey Alexander‘s recommendation – it’s a commentary on how much I trusted their recommendations that I ordered a physical copy even before I requested an ARC! The author lists LeGuin as one of their influences, and this fairy tale has a lot of the qualities you’d expect from her work. It brought back a lot of the same feelings I felt when I first encountered her work as a teen. This is the first work I’ve read in the Birdverse (though this is the first novella, there are stories and poems) and it won’t be the last.
“The Four Profound Weaves. A carpet of wind, a carpet of sand, a carpet of song, and a carpet of bones. Change, wanderlust, hope, and death.”
The story follows two elderly trans characters: Uiziya, a weaver from one of the Surun’ tribes and a nameless Khana man, nen-sasaïr. After forty years of holding on to the cloth of winds – the magic used to remake bodies – that Uiziya’s aunt Benesret made him, Nen-sasaïr has only recently made the change and is struggling with what to call himself now. He hopes Benesret will name him, but she’s been banished and no one will tell him why. Uiziya knows, and has her own reasons for seeking out her aunt – she wants to be taught the Four Profound Weaves, a magic unique to the Surun’ tribes. What seems like a simple quest to find her turns into an exploration of their pasts and what, truly, it means to change.
“Changing is not done among his people.”
Benesret snorted, an odd hollow sound. “That’s what he says. Changing is always and forever done. Everywhere, it is done; in open, in secret. He has gone through the change and so, I assure you, have others.”
The worldbuilding is excellent. The magic was fascinating. Besides the Surun’ weaving, there’s also a more general magic that involves deepnames. How many deepnames and the number of syllables in each deepname determines how powerful a person is, and the deepnames can be used in different configurations to power magic. The Khana people – nen-sasaïr’s people – are divided strictly along gender binaries. Men live on one side of the wall in the Khana quarters in Iyar, studying and building magical automata. The women live on the other side, and they’re the ones who form women-only family units and set off into the desert and beyond to trade. The Surun’ tribes are more accepting of non-cis people – inbetweeners (non-binary) and trans. What differs here from our world is that their magic allows trans people to remake their bodies to match their minds.
“Those who loved you held you in shape, even if this shape was all wrong.”
As a cis woman, I naively thought that a world with the magic to near-instantaneously remake bodies would make trans lives easier, but I misjudged how transphobia can be engrained in a society. Uiziya wove her own cloth of change when she was a child, while nen-sasaïr was given one on a trading trip when he was already an adult. For Uiziya, among a people who accept differences from the “norm,” the fact that she’s trans isn’t even worth commenting on, and nen-sasaïr even initially assumes she’s cis. Nen-sasaïr has a harder time with both life in general and as a trans person. After the death of one of their lovers, his other lover downplayed his feels in an effort to control him. For forty years she kept his cloth of winds locked away, and kept him locked away in the body he was born in. He stayed because he loved her and was scared, and it was only after her death that he felt free to make the change. There’s more traditional horror in this book – there’s a very good reason Benesret was exiled – but the part that stuck with me was being trapped by those who are supposed to love you unconditionally when you figure out that it’s only pieces of you they love, not your whole self.
And, of course, there’s the whole classic fairy tale quest aspect that leads Uiziya and nen-sasaïr from the depths of the Burri desert to the Rainbow-Tiered Court of the ruler of Iyar. The prose is lovely and lyrical and always leads back to the themes of change and transformation. It’s a bit slowly paced but expected considering it’s about two elderly characters with all their expected physical ailments and travel difficulties.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to the author’s next entry into the Birdverse universe!